Some time ago, I found a play. THE play.
I hung onto it for a few years, six or seven, and then, recently, I had the feeling that the time was right.
I wrote to the agent and was … very quickly denied the rights. I was devastated, but determined. So I reached out directly, hoping to convince the playwright otherwise:
Dear Brilliant Playwright,
Hello, my name is Julia. You and I don’t know each other, but I’m a theatre director from Sydney. I’ve been dealing mostly with Jessica* (your excellent agent), because that’s the way things work and arguably one of the reasons you have her on your team is so that you don’t have to receive correspondence like this one, so please forgive the intrusion.
Your Excellent Agent has recently relayed that you don’t currently see a life for your play here in Sydney at the moment, and while I respect that your work is your work and it is entirely your prerogative to decide where and when it is produced, I hope to convince you to reconsider your decision.
I slaved over this letter.
I was obsessed. It was sent to friends who are dramaturgs and playwrights. There were shared Google docs and drafts V1-6. I read it out to my long-suffering girlfriend in the car over and over again, asking for notes. I knew that if I could be convincing enough, bold enough, clever enough, that I would get to direct this play.
Over the last 18 months, an unprecedented reckoning has occurred across the planet. Much of what our society has been grappling with is how widespread abuse can really be, who is to blame, and how those responsible should be punished.
Your play, however, deals not with the act of abuse, nor directly seeks retribution from an abuser. Your work deals with something much more difficult, and arguably more important to articulate: the reclamation of personal agency.
I had no idea when I first read your play how prescient it was and how important it would become. But now, I can see. Plays like this ask the questions we all must ask in 2019. After the trauma, after the search for the guilty, after the ‘I’m okay, I’ll be fine’, after we’ve pulled together a life for ourselves; how do we circle back and properly rebuild?
How do we claim ourselves back from someone we trusted not to hurt us?
How can we possibly stand face-to-face with what has truly happened to us when denial has been our most loyal and effective protector?
I didn’t get the rights to the play I was pursuing.
It wasn’t some extraordinarily unfair act of God. It was very, very ordinary, actually. Sometimes, most of the time, you find something you connect with so deeply, so quickly and by the time you’re inquiring officially if you can do it, someone else has got there first.
And so I let go of the play.
But the letter I’d written had unearthed something in me: Why do we see so much overt violence on the stage and so little unpacking of the aftermath? Is it easier to use rape as a plot device than it is to understand its impact on the survivors? Absolutely. But who does that serve?
When a character is assaulted onstage, who is it for? Is it for the survivors?
The ones who comb through the content warnings before they commit to seeing it?
The ones who must make excuses not to see a play because of one particular scene? Is it to represent their experience?
But if it’s not for them, who is it for? Is it for the perpetrators? So that they might see what they have done in a theatrical context and suddenly have a ‘come-to-Jesus’ moment, realising the impact of their actions? I don’t think so.
Is it for those in between? Those who haven’t experienced it, so that they might feel a simulation of the pain, to expand their understanding?
Whatever it is, I’m no longer interested in the moment trauma was inflicted, but in what happens next. After the act. After the violence. When it’s the next day. When it’s been a year, or two. When it’s been a decade. When it’s something that has been internalised so well that it is like DNA.
I’ve written a new play for Bondi Feast, called The Knife.
It’s about a young woman, Ellie, who has put her life back together piece by piece after suffering a significant trauma. Ellie is funny, smart, charming, annoying and most of all, she’s really, really, really fine.
So why does everything fall through the floor when the phone rings?
It might sound like Ellie is our victim, but in this show, she’s anything but.
The play asks, what happens when the roles are reversed? What happens if we look ONLY at the ‘after’? What happens when the victim gets a chance to become a perpetrator?
If I count up the hours I spent agonising over how to ask to direct the Brilliant Playwright’s Play; if I added up each and every draft of the letter I wrote; if I calculated how much time I spent choosing the right tone and set of adjectives: I can see that I spent months asking for permission to tell a story that I wanted to reframe.
So I wrote my own play that reframes a familiar narrative in a way that addresses the questions that I believe need to be asked in 2019.
The Knife is an attempt at taking revenge on the narrative you’ve been given. You’ll be with us, in the back of a truck for better or for worse. Our heroine won’t be stripped of agency while we all watch on, complicit.
The Knife is bloody, and violent and terrifying and not in the ways it’s supposed to be.
It doesn’t behave. It doesn’t ask permission. And neither do we.